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Critical Game Making an RPG in Unity

This session covers an introduction to game design and making, and an overview of critical game making and how to use it in pedagogical settings.

Published onOct 28, 2021
Critical Game Making an RPG in Unity
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Session Specifics

The session can be used for a workshop or a class activity aimed at students and professionals with little to no experience with making digital games. The instructor should adapt the session’s disciplinary content as appropriate for their learning outcomes. The 1-hour non-technical activity and the full 3-hour activity with Unity and the Creator Kit: RPG can be adapted for learning environments where the game making process is scaffolded over many weeks and explored through group discussions. It is expected that participants in this session will continue to develop their RPG on their own time as either a course-based assignment, knowledge mobilization or personal project.

Critical game making allows both creators and players to collaboratively explore a disciplinary topic or contemporary issue through creating a gameplay experience. Disciplinary topics can range from branches of knowledge in traditional disciplines like English, History, and Sociology to cross-disciplinary subjects like gender, race, and disability. Contemporary issues can include contentious topics in public health, education, organized labour, and civil rights, to name but a few. Creators explore and reflect on the communities, knowledge domains, and life experiences in these topics and issues. A successfully-made game is one where the creator and player mutually understand the subject matter through both game making and gameplay. This combination means that from conception to completion, participants are expected to understand an issue, sketch the issue into a designed game mechanic, and then prototype the issue into a game that gives themselves and other players a more nuanced understanding of that issue, potentially leading to knowledge mobilization and public awareness. 

This session covers an introduction to game design and making, and an overview of critical game making and how to use it in pedagogical settings. Participants in the session activity will learn how to explore and reflect critically on topics and issues in their disciplines through the process of game making. Participants will also learn how to use the game editor Unity using the Creator Kit: RPG to build a role-playing game (RPG) prototype. RPG’s are a game genre where players assume the role of a character in a fictional setting, which can be ideal for exploring and critically reflecting on a range of communities, domains, and experiences through story-driven gameplay. Instructors can adapt the exercise according to their own critical perspective and other RPG game editors like RPG Maker and GameMaker: Studio.

The screenshot shows two role-playing game characters in a dialogue conversation. The one character asks the other character “Hello, critical game maker! Do you want to make a RPG in Unity?” The dialogue box provides the player answer options “Yes, please!” or “No, maybe later.”

Figure 1. Screenshot of a RPG dialogue scene created in the Creator Kit: RPG.

Instructional Partners 

Appropriate instructional partners include secondary school instructors, post-secondary instructors, librarians, archivists, museum and information professionals. Instructors should have fundamental knowledge of the topics and contemporary issues in their respective academic discipline that participants will explore, and some basic understanding of game design along with game making experience in Unity. This combined rudimentary knowledge will assist with creating a rich learning environment and examples to draw on for the activity.

In situations where instructors lack game design experience, it is recommended they familiarize themselves with the Unity game editor and the Creator Kit: RPG. With no prior experience, instructors can build a basic prototype RPG with the Creator Kit: RPG in 2 to 3 hours. Additional time dedicated to making a more robust and playable RPG will only enhance the instructor's understanding of how to use Unity, the Creator Kit: RPG, and game design more broadly. This game making process will also familiarize instructors with many of the technical issues participants will encounter in the session.

The screenshot shows the Unity Learn platform with the tutorial documentation for the Creator Kit: RPG asset package.

Figure 2. Screenshot of the Creator Kit: RPG tutorials and instructions in Unity Learn.

Audience 

Audience for the activity could include secondary students, post-secondary students, librarians, archivists, museum, and information professionals. Other learning environments may be applicable that look to engage in an examination of disciplinary topics and contemporary issues through the process of making games. Participants in the session are not expected to have prior experience with game making and Unity as they will learn how to make an RPG in Unity during the activity session.

Curricular Context

The session is broad enough to be inclusive of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering, as long as instructors are looking to examine contemporary topics and contemporary issues through the process of making games. For example, in a game studies course, topics and issues can include labour and working conditions of developers, toxic player communities, representation of women in games, and the accessibility of game controls, visuals, and audio, to name but a few. These topics involve diverse communities, multiple knowledge domains, and a plethora of life experiences which can be intimately explored through the process of critical game making. Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) may also use critical game making to examine topics and issues in their professional field, such as preservation, curation, and access. While this session is designed to take 3 hours, it can be adapted for learning environments where the game making process is scaffolded over many weeks and explored through group discussions.

Learning Outcomes

Instructors in the session will learn:

  1. The application of critical game making to instruction. 

  2. To lead participants in a critical game making activity.

  3. To teach participants how to make a game.

  4. To introduce participants to some game design fundamentals.

  5. To think through the ways game making can examine topics and contemporary issues from a critical game making perspective.

Participants in the sessions will learn:

  1. The communities, domains, and experiences of the contemporary issue or topic explored.

  2. The basics of game design and role-playing games.

  3. How to make a digital game in a game editor software, like Unity.

  4. How to design the communities, domains, and experiences of the contemporary issue or topic into a role-playing game.

Preparation

This session consists of three separate sections:

  1. An introduction to critical game making.

  2. How to use critical game making in examining topics and contemporary issues.

  3. Links to useful resources and supplemental readings.

If possible, the supplemental resources and readings should be provided to participants in advance of the activity.

Instructors should have a fundamental understanding of the topics and contemporary issues in their respective discipline, as well as knowledge and experience with game design more broadly in the context of making games. Participants do not need any prior experience, but it is assumed they have some familiarity with playing games like RPGs and operating creative software tools and editors like Adobe Creative products. While it is not required, a basic understanding of how to install applications and change settings is desired if participants will be using their own computers.

Technical Requirements

Instructors may need to provide instructions for how to install game making software on participants’ personal computers. If participants do not have access to computers then instructors will need access to a computer lab or laptops to ensure participants have equal access and opportunity to participate in the critical game making activity. Some essential materials participants should have for the session are provided below. The instructor should use discretion and provide clear instructions about what to provide from institutional resources and what the participants should bring themselves.

The screenshot shows the Creator Kit: RPG asset package in the Unity Hub with the option to open the package. It also includes information on the package technical requirements.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the Creator Kit: RPG asset package in the Unity Hub.

Computer

A desktop or laptop capable of running the Unity Editor (latest long term support (LTS) version is Unity 2020.3)

  • Operating System - PC (Windows 7 (SP1+), Windows 10), macOS (Sierra 10.12.6+), Linux (Ubuntu 16.04+, Ubuntu 18.04, CentOS 7).

  • Computer Processing Unit (CPU) - X64 architecture with SSE2 instruction set support

  • Graphics API - PC (DX10, DX11, and DX12-capable GPUs), macOS (Metal-capable Intel and AMD GPUs), Linux (OpenGL 3.2+ or Vulkan-capable, Nvidia and AMD GPUs).

This section lists the minimum requirements to run the Unity Editor. Actual performance and rendering quality may vary depending on the complexity of your project.

Software

The Unity Editor operates on Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems. The simplest way to install and maintain the Unity Editor on your computer is to download the Unity Hub manager which allows you to launch projects in different versions of the Unity editor and to check for updates. 

From there you can create your Unity account and install a specific version of the Unity Editor. However, the organization of your Unity files can get messy if you decide to work on multiple projects, which may require you to install multiple versions of the Unity Editor. As such, the recommended setup is the process outlined below. 

  • Download and Install the Unity Hub from the Unity’s website.

  • Create a Unity Account on Unity’s website and choose the free Personal License.

  • Sign-in to your Unity account through the Unity Hub installed on your computer.

Additional Requirements (Optional)

For this workshop session use Unity’s Creator Kit: RPG to make a role-playing game (RPG). You may decide to use this example in your own session or you may want to use another RPG game editor like RPG Maker and GameMaker: Studio.

When choosing a Unity kit it is important to consult the Unity Editor requirements to know which version of the Editor operates best with the kit. In this case, the Creator Kit: RPG operates best with Unity 2019.1 or higher, according to its Asset Store Page

As such, for this session we will be using the latest version of the Editor, which was 2020.3 at the time of writing. The Unity Learn documentation for the Creator Kit: RPG has an excellent step-by-step guide for how to install the Kit along with the corresponding version of the Editor. The Kit also includes all the specific instructions for how to use the Kit.

Session Outline

Introduction to Critical Game Making

In recent years pedagogical concepts have been developed to incorporate game making as an approach to learning. Several of these approaches have explored the idea of critically engaging with games from a player-designer-maker perspective to acquire a more nuanced and critically-reflexive understanding of a topic or contemporary issue (Flanagan, 2009; Prax, 2020; Romero, 2015; Westecott, 2020; Wilcox, 2019). While the purpose of this section is not to provide a literature review of the field, it is important to note some of these approaches as they inform the notion of critical game making for this session.

The three main concepts that comprise the notion of critical game making derive from Emma Westecott’s (2020) “game sketching”, Steve Wilcox’s (2019) “praxis games”, and Matt Ratto’s (2011; 2012) “critical making”. All three of these concepts come from different disciplinary backgrounds, but share the core idea of using the process of making to critically explore and reflect on a topic or contemporary issue. Instructors intending to use this critical game making session may also find these other concepts more preferable for their pedagogical needs.

Game sketching is the process of exploring both the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of game making before any prototyping takes place (Westecott, 2020). This allows students to question gameplay mechanics and aesthetics before the game is prototyped and tested. The process of game sketching is akin to developing a game design document that articulates how gameplay is meant to be experienced and what gameplay is meant to look, sound, or feel like. Game sketching is also a recommended practice before working with any game making tool as it can help participants improve their design before any technical labour is performed in making the game.

In contrast to game sketching, Ratto’s (2011; 2012) concept of critical making involves a more hands-on prototyping approach to exploring a disciplinary topic or contemporary issue. Critical making involves performing a literature review to understand the key issues to explore, and then delve straight into the design and make a prototype. However, the process is iterative in that redesigns and reconfigurations of the prototype are undertaken constantly as a result of reflection and conversations with peers. In many ways, the critical making approach can be ideal for learning environments where the game making process is scaffolded over many weeks and explored through group discussions.

When thinking about sketching and prototyping games, it’s equally important to consider the wider elements of a conceptual topic or contemporary issue before any design work is undertaken. Wilcox’s (2019) notion of “praxis games” looks at game design as an approach that guides players to discover situated and intersectional knowledges inside a range of communities, domains, and experiences (Haraway, 1988; Collins, 1991). For the game making activity in the next section, situating a topic or contemporary issue within a wider range of elements not only creates a more meaningful game making and gameplay experience for participants, but it also encourages participants to think about how these different elements can be parsed, explored, and built into gameplay mechanics.

Critical game making is the process of designing gameplay experiences to explore and critically reflect on a conceptual topic or contemporary issue. In many ways, critical game making is an adaptation of critical making, game praxis, and game sketching, but with a specific focus on creating gameplay experiences where both the creator and player gain a new understanding of an issue that may not have been achieved through other scholarly practices, such as writing. Critical game making has the additional layer of creating a gameplay experience where players are also able to explore and reflect on a range of communities, domains, and experiences. 

Critical Game Making Activity

For the critical game making activity, we use Unity’s Creator Kit: RPG (Kit) to make a role-playing game (RPG). RPG’s are a game genre where players assume the role of a character in a fictional setting, which can be ideal for exploring and critically reflecting on a range of communities, domains, and experiences through story-driven gameplay.

The tutorials in the Kit can be taught to the students in 1 to 2 hours depending on how technical you want the session to be. The Kit includes an overview of the Unity Editor, how to use the assets to build your game’s environment, and how to use the game mechanics to create a role-playing game experience. One of the advantages of using Unity, and specifically the Kit, is that it does not require programming or art experience to use. Participants will need to familiarize themselves with the Unity Editor and follow the instructor’s guidance on how to modify the Kit in building their game prototypes.

The Kit includes three core game design mechanics which can be used to design the gameplay experiences that explore the topic or contemporary issue:

  • Story items: text which appears to share information with players when they reach a specific location in the game environment. These story items can also be linked and made dependent on enacting previous story items in the game environment. This can be useful if you want to guide the player through an environment and only share information at specific times.

The screenshot shows the Story Items feature in the Unity Editor. This feature of the Creator Kit: RPG can be edited to include narrative text that players will interact with when they come across it in a playthrough of the game.

Figure 4: Screenshot of the Story Items feature in the Creator Kit: RPG.

  • Story trees: conversations with non-player characters (NPC) in the game environment. These conversations can be used to unpack a conceptual topic or contemporary issue through dialogue. This can be useful if you want to provide multiple perspectives and nuance between NPCs and the player’s character when exploring communities, knowledge domains, and experiences.

The screenshot shows the Story Trees feature in the Unity Editor. This feature of the Creator Kit: RPG can be edited to include dialogue and conversations with non-player characters.

Figure 5: Screenshot of the Story Trees feature in the Creator Kit: RPG.

  • Quests: tasks created through conversations with the NPCs in the game environment. These quests can be used to advance the storyline and encourage the player to explore the games environment and interact with other NPCs. Quests are the driving-force of RPGs and can be critical in shaping a gameplay experience around a conceptual topic or contemporary issue.

The screenshot shows the Quests feature in the Unity Editor. This feature of the Creator Kit: RPG can be edited to include an item to be retrieved and complete the quest, as well as dialogue and conversations with non-player characters.

Figure 6: Screenshot of the Quests feature in the Creator Kit: RPG.

The following structure can be used for a full 3-hour session that allows participants to create a game prototype (or elements of a prototype) using the Kit in tandem with the topic or issue to be explored:

  • Overview: 10-minute lecture on conceptual topic or contemporary issue that highlights the range of communities, knowledge domains, and personal experiences that could be incorporated into a gameplay experience.

  • Mechanics: 5-minute lecture on the game mechanics describing how each mechanic of story item, story tree, and quest can be used to design a gameplay experience.

  • Task: 5-minute lecture on the activity where students are encouraged to design a RPG around a specific topic or contemporary issue. The assessment criteria in the following section may be useful to instructors to provide guidance and question prompts.

  • Activity: 20-minute individual or group activity where students sketch out their game’s design to include a high-level overview of the story items, story trees, and quests in how they can be used to explore and critically reflect on a topic or contemporary issue.

  • Discussion: 20-minute group discussion where each individual or group reports back on their mechanics and how they envision it can provide a gameplay experience 

  • Unity Workshop: 60-minute walkthrough of the Kit tutorial instructions to familiarize students with the Unity Editor interface, how to build your game’s environment, and how to use the game mechanics to create a role-playing game experience.

  • Prototype Building: 40-minute individual or group activity where participants work on prototyping their game environment and mechanics to create a gameplay experience.

  • Discussion: 20-minute group discussion where each individual or group reports back on their technical mechanics and how their game’s current design measures against the intended gameplay experience. 

The following structure can be used for a short 1-hour session that takes a non-technical game sketching approach without use of Unity or the Kit:

  • Overview: 10-minute lecture on conceptual topic or contemporary issue that highlights the range of communities, knowledge domains, and personal experiences that could be incorporated into a gameplay experience.

  • Mechanics: 5-minute lecture on the game mechanics describing how each mechanic of story item, story tree, and quest can be used to design a gameplay experience.

  • Task: 5-minute lecture on the activity where students are encouraged to design a RPG around a specific topic or contemporary issue. The assessment criteria in the following section may be useful to instructors to provide guidance and question prompts.

  • Activity: 20-minute individual or group activity where students sketch out their game’s design to include a high-level overview of the story items, story trees, and quests in how they can be used to explore and critically reflect on a topic or contemporary issue.

  • Discussion: 20-minute group discussion where each individual or group reports back on their mechanics and how they envision it can provide a gameplay experience.

The time suggestions provided for each section are there to guide the structure of the session depending on the time available and the goals of the instructor. It is important to note that participants are not expected to create a game in this session but to demonstrate elements of a functional prototype. If an instructor expects this session to lead to a deliverable, such as a finished game, then more time would need to be provided. The amount of time needed to create a polished prototype is akin to producing a first draft of a research paper. As such, it is recommended that instructors have realistic expectations of what to achieve in the activity session, especially if students are new to game design, making games, and working with complex software environments.

Supplementary Resources

To learn more about the essentials of game design, it is recommended you read Robert Zubek’s (2020) Elements of Game Design and Tracy Fullerton’s (2018) Game Design Workshop. Both are excellent introductions for learning settings and provide practical examples, lesson plans, and additional readings for instructors.

The suggested activity above is one approach amongst a plethora of game tools and genres to choose from. Unity has dozens of other kits that could be adapted to the activity. There are also kits and resources in game making editors like Construct 3, GameMaker Studio 2, Stencyl, RPG Maker, Twine, Unreal Engine, and many more. 

For instructors looking to adapt critical game making without the use of software, the genre of Print & Play (PnP) games may be ideal where participants can rapidly prototype board games and card games. Board Game Geek has an excellent wiki page with dozens of resources covering each step of the PnP game making process.

Assessment 

The game prototype (or elements of the game prototype) produced during the workshop session should be able to address the following question criteria:

  • Thesis: What is the argument or primary goal of the gameplay experience? What would the participant learn while making the game? What did other participants learn while playing the game?

  • Mechanics: How do the chosen game mechanics provide a gameplay experience? Are the mechanics suitable for the intended argument or primary goals of the gameplay experience? 

  • Experience: Does the gameplay experience explore and critically reflect on the disciplinary topic or contemporary issue? What communities, knowledge domains, and experiences are missing from the gameplay experience? Did the game making process produce new insights into the topic or contemporary issue?

While these are guiding criteria questions instructors may have their own assessment criteria. As long as the session activity works towards participants exploring and critically reflecting on a conceptual topic or contemporary issue through the process of game making then the activity has been successful.

Reflection

Many instructors and participants in this workshop session may find the game design and technical knowledge to be overwhelming in addition to the goal of exploring and reflecting critically on a conceptual topic or contemporary issue. As such, some instructors may find the short version will work very well for their purposes.

Keep in mind that each software, kit of assets, and game design principles and mechanics you add increases the complexity of the session. Gauge the experience and technical expertise of your audience before offering this session. 

Scaffolding the session is also a viable option where Part 1 takes the short session and Part 2 builds in the full session. What is important for all instructors and participants to take away from the session is a new appreciation and perspective on the conceptual topic and contemporary issue you intend to explore and reflect on critically together.

References

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